Organizations join forces to further palliative care, oppose physician-assisted suicide

| December 1, 2016 | 2 Comments

Despite the withdrawal of a bill to legalize physician-assisted suicide earlier this year, state and national organizations including the Catholic Health Association of Minnesota and the Minnesota Catholic Conference continue to have concerns about the issue’s status in Minnesota.

With the aim of defending the ill and elderly against what they see as misguided and harmful policy, they’ve joined forces to create the Minnesota Alliance for Ethical Healthcare. The 34 organizations partnering in the new coalition seek to further palliative care for the ill and elderly in addition to preventing physician-assisted suicide. Sixty-seven doctors have also joined the coalition. Palliative care seeks to comfort the whole person in a time of serious illness.

“A number of recent studies have shown patients who have their symptoms controlled and are able to communicate their emotional needs, have a better experience with their medical care,” said Toby Pearson, executive director of the Catholic Health Association of Minnesota.

Toby Pearson

Toby Pearson

Palliative care supports a person’s psychological and spiritual needs in addition to his or her physical suffering. The care also helps patients’ families cope with their loved one’s suffering.

“It’s starting to be covered more by most insurance plans, Medicare and Medicaid included,” Pearson said. “As the word starts to get out more and more, folks are starting to turn to it.”

The Catholic Health Association supports Catholic healthcare providers in embracing tenants of Catholic social teaching, which rejects any form of suicide.

In addition to the Minnesota Catholic Conference, which works to further the common good in the civic arena on behalf of the state’s bishops, Catholic coalition partners include Benedictine Health System, Curatio Apostolate of Catholic Healthcare Professionals, Catholic Medical Association diocesan guilds, the Knights of Columbus Minnesota State Council and the University of St. Thomas Prolife Center.

Other partners include the Human Life Alliance, the American Academy of Medical Ethics, the California-based Center for Bioethics and Culture, Gianna Homes and other organizations serving the elderly and disabled. Lutheran and Muslim organizations are also members.

The coalition was formed in response to the Compassionate Care Act, introduced in the State Legislature this year to legalize physician-assisted suicide. The author withdrew the bill in March after a Senate hearing that included emotional testimony from the husband of Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old with terminal brain cancer who gained national attention in 2014 when she ended her life with doctor-prescribed drugs.

While a Republican-controlled Legislature may mean similar so-called “death with dignity” or “right to die” legislation won’t advance in the near future, coalition members are working to educate others about the dangers of physician-assisted suicide and the benefits of palliative care.

“Hopefully this year, we’ll be introducing some legislation that tries to improve palliative care and how it’s done in Minnesota,” Pearson said.

Nineteen years after Oregon became the first state in the nation to legalize physician-assisted suicide, similar laws have been passed elsewhere in the United States. Colorado legalized the practice in the past election, and Washington, D.C., is also on track to approve it. It is also legal in California, Montana, Vermont and Washington.

Pearson said changing the state’s culture will require “a longer-term conversation in the community about what is real care through life’s journey and how do we do end-of-life care better rather than simply turning to assisted suicide as the answer.”

According to its website, the MN Alliance for Ethical Healthcare affirms: “Assisted suicide can target and devalue people who most deserve our assistance and compassion: those with disabilities, the elderly, and low-income individuals; government should find ways to prioritize proper treatment and management of pain, not find ways for people to kill themselves; allowing medical professionals to prescribe lethal drugs damages the patient-provider relationship; palliative care is a proven way to relieve pain and provide comfort; [and] Minnesota should always prioritize care rather than hasten death.”

People can get involved in the coalition by visiting http://www.ethicalcaremn.org.

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  • Damian LaPorte

    My apologies for the length of this comment.

    It’s unfortunate that, in its effort to oppose legislation that would legalize physician assisted death in Minnesota, the MN Alliance for Ethical Healthcare website generates more heat than light.

    The website homepage features the personal stories of three women who oppose physician assisted death. However, their testimonies grossly misrepresent the Oregon Death with Dignity Act and similar laws in other states.

    One of the three featured stories, “Kathy & Kylen,” is written by the mother of a 21-year-old profoundly disabled young man. Comparing reasons Oregonians give for requesting life-ending medication to her son’s disabilities, Kathy states, “Assisted suicide is a societal proclamation that Kylen and his peers with disabilities are better off dead than disabled.” She provides no evidence to support this claim.

    In fact, Kathy shows that she completely misunderstands how the Oregon law works. To be eligible, one must: 1) have a terminal disease described in the Oregon legislation as “an incurable and irreversible disease that has been medically confirmed and will, within reasonable medical judgment, produce death within six months”; 2) be mentally competent to request life-ending medication for oneself; and 3) be physically able to self-administer the medications that will lead to death. Even if Kathy’s son Kylen’s health deteriorated and he was given six months or less to live, he would be ineligible under Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act since, because of his disabilities, he is neither able to request life-ending medications nor to self-administer the medication that would result in death.

    The other two testimonies – “Teresa” and “Elizabeth” – are equally misleading, stating, again, without any evidence to support their claims, that physician assisted death legislation “fosters the sense that the lives of the most vulnerable do not have the same value as others” (Teresa), and “tells people with terminal illness that they are a burden not worth bearing” (Elizabeth).

    I’m not aware of any studies on the impact of physician assisted death on individuals who request it that cite any of the dire consequences put forth in the three personal testimonies featured on ethicalcaremn.org.

    I lived in Oregon during the debate over the Death with Dignity Act (DWDA), and it might be helpful to readers of the Catholic Spirit to consider some statistics.

    The DWDA requires the Oregon Public Health Division to collect and publish an annual data report which includes the number of people for whom prescriptions were written and the resulting deaths from the ingestion of the medications. For 2015, those numbers were 218 and 125. So 43% of those who obtained medications did not use them, which has been a consistent pattern over the 19 years the law has been in effect. The report also collects demographic data and data on underlying illness. In 2015, for 95 (72%) of those individuals, the terminal illness was some form of cancer.

    Many people are surprised by the relatively small number of people who have accessed life-ending medications under the Oregon law. In 2015, there were 32,737 recorded deaths from natural causes (out of 35,709 total deaths). Of those 32,737 deaths, only 125 (0.38%) were physician-assisted deaths. The Oregon law is in its 19th year. If the law “tells people with terminal illness that they are a burden not worth bearing,” it hasn’t been very persuasive among terminally ill Oregonians.

    There are good reasons why someone might oppose Minnesota legislation to permit physicians to prescribe life-ending medications for terminally ill individuals. The reasons given in the three personal testimonies on the MN Alliance for Ethical Healthcare website are not among them.

    A good argument against something requires first of all that you understand and accurately represent what you’re opposing. One place to start is to study the Oregon Death with Dignity Act (DWDA), and the latest (2015) Oregon Public Health Division DWDA data report, both easily accessible online.

    • Paula Ruddy

      Thanks for this information, Damian. Do you remember if there were any arguments in Oregon that the question of “right to die” should be removed from health care providers and placed in courts with the capacity to provide hearings to determine competency? Is it the place of health care providers to “assist” with death? I wonder if that doesn’t weaken the confidence that if you go to a doctor or a hospital the providers there will do all in their power to keep you alive. If you do not want to live, it might be better to take the issue to an authority set up to find out whether you are making a free choice. What do you think?